Moving Mountains: The Incredible Architectural Journey of Snøhetta

Founded above an Oslo beer hall in 1989, Snøhetta has grown into an internationally renowned design firm.

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

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Few practices have made as big an impact on cultural architecture over the course of the past quarter century as international firm Snøhetta. From the bustling streets of Alexandria, Egypt, to the snow-capped mountains surrounding Hjerkinn in its native Norway, the studio’s projects now span every typology and terrain imaginable. Famously founded above an Oslo beer hall in 1989, the studio’s adaptable approach to design and sensitivity toward context has resulted in a global reach that belies its modest origins.

In 2015, Snøhetta raised a glass to celebrate 25 years of projects, marking the occasion with the release of a beautifully illustrated monograph that includes the fascinating stories behind 25 key works in the firm’s history. Packed with personal accounts of the design processes behind some of Snøhetta’s seminal projects, this document charts Snøhetta’s transformation from a six-man band in Oslo to an international studio employing hundreds in New York, San Francisco, Singapore, and beyond.

Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria, Egypt

In the Beginning

In 1989, Snøhetta was effectively launched as an international firm with victory in a major competition to design the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt. “When we won the competition, we had only been working as a practice for a couple of years,” says Founding Partner Kjetil Troedal Thorsen. “I was 31, Craig [Dykers] was 28 … the people that worked on the competition were more of a loosely knit international group than an established practice. Even if we were all experienced architects at the time, it was in every way the biggest project any of us had worked on.”

The library building, a huge tilted cylinder of stone hand-carved with inscriptions representing the different alphabets and symbols of world history, would catapult the firm into the limelight as it progressed from concept to construction in the late 1990s. The 11-story building comprises a series of seven terraces that mean the four million books stored there will always avoid damaging exposure to light. It is this close relationship between form and function, together with a love of rich materiality, that would go on to define many more projects by the firm over the following decades.

Oslo Opera House, Oslo, Norway

On the Home Front

As construction in Alexandria approached completion, another key commission was secured, this time on home territory. In June 2000, Snøhetta triumphed in an open international competition for the new Oslo Opera House — its design being praised by the jury for its “elegant back-of-house planning and the way the inclined form mediated between the fjord and the surrounding hills.” However, its standout feature was one that is now the closest thing to a Snøhetta signature: a roof you can walk on.

Oslo Opera House, Oslo, Norway

This feature, described in Snøhetta’s monograph as the “ultimate inclusive urban gesture,” characterizes the firm’s preoccupation with democratizing architecture. The sloped surface offers wonderful views across the fjord without creating an imposing presence at the water’s edge. The goal here was to create a pure public space. Thorsen explains: “The program of the roof is the absence of commercial pressures. No hot dogs, no ice cream. We had to fight for that, and, instead, we tried to introduce layers of other elements, like the art, to emphasize, precisely, that this space is not commercialized, not privatized.”

Global Reach

As the opera house made the rounds in the international architectural press and tourist brochures in 2008, it put Oslo on the cultural map again. It seemed that Snøhetta had conjured up its own “Bilbao Effect,” without needing to resort to the theatrical style of Gehry’s Guggenheim. The firm’s subtle but distinctive design illustrated its ability to produce quiet icons, a rare quality that made Snøhetta the ideal choice to design a cultural hub dedicated to telling the story of New York City’s greatest tragedy.

National September 11th Memorial Museum Pavilion, New York, N.Y.

On winning the commission for the National September 11th Memorial Museum Pavilion in 2004, the monograph describes the firm’s successful delivery of its most emotive work to date: “Snøhetta seemed able to navigate the project safely through the turbulent waters of conflicting interests, claims and programmes that beset the Ground Zero site.”

Opening in 2014, Snøhetta’s museum appears as an architectural iceberg in the heart of Manhattan’s downtown district: a crystalline pavilion shimmers in the changing light and grants access to a vast subterranean archive of exhibits that provide insight into one of the darkest days in the history of the city. The project illustrated Snøhetta’s aptitude for designing in the most challenging of contexts, from the remote mountains of Scandinavia — see the extraordinary Tverrfjellhytta Reindeer Pavilion in Dovre, Norway, completed in 2011 — to densely packed business districts of the world’s foremost metropolises.

Tverrfjellhytta Reindeer Pavilion, Dovre, Norway

Now … And Next

The ability to deliver designs within the most restrictive urban contexts is now being demonstrated at an even larger scale on the west coast of the United States. Snøhetta’s ten-story expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco is approaching completion; its grand opening slated for next year. A glacial cliff of fiberglass reinforced polymer (FRP) panels rises above Mario Botta’s original brick structure, wraps 235,000 square feet of new exhibition space, and provides a gleaming new cultural landmark for the Bay Area.

SFMOMA, San Francisco, Calif.

As the rippled skin of SFMOMA completes Snøhetta’s architectural traverse across North America, the firm is taking its cultural expertise to an increasingly diverse array of locations across the globe. The King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia incorporates one million square feet of mixed-use space including an auditorium, cinema, library, exhibition hall, museum, and archive. Gleaming, pebble-like volumes respond to the project’s desert context and further expand the firm’s experience in distinctive environmental and cultural climates.

King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

What lies ahead over the next 25 years for Snøhetta? If the studio’s upward trajectory over the past decade is anything to go by, nothing is impossible. It seems likely that the firm’s future portfolio will depend more on the kinds of commissions it feels fit with its philosophy and design approach, rather than relying on the kinds of competitions that has secured it some of the biggest breaks in its history to date. One thing is certain: the diversity of context, scale, and program will ensure that Snøhetta’s designs never become predictable. The adaptable animals of Scandinavia will continue to confound expectations long into the future.

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